A Falconer’s Tale: Lecturer, explorer, author Rusty Johnson

Moving beyond an early diagnosis of ADD and dyslexia

Learn about falconer Rusty Johnson and how he has thrived with ADD and dyslexia

Rusty Johnson has a full life. He lectures on wildlife at colleges and to groups around the country, from Princeton University to MENSA – he’s given over 3,000 at last count. He has appeared on talk shows, showing off his menagerie to Conan O’Brien and David Letterman. He regularly travels down to the Amazon. He has written one book on his experiences and is almost finished with a second. He plays guitar. He is married and has an infant son.

It could have all turned out quite differently. When Johnson was a child, attending school in Ulster County in the 1980s, he had trouble with his studies. Teachers would scold him for being lazy and not applying himself. But Johnson was spending extra time on homework, guided through lessons by his mother. Despite the added assistance, he still found that after reading a paragraph, he had no memory retention. “It would go in thin air; I wouldn’t absorb it.”

“Luckily I am blessed with the best parents in the world,” Johnson, 38, says today. Rather than allow their son to be shunted aside as mentally slow, they sought professional help. A neurologist diagnosed the elementary school student with dyslexia and ADD – both now recognized ailments, but at that time typically misdiagnosed.

While words sitting on a page continued to challenge him, Rusty Johnson (born Wayne Russell Johnson) had a gnawing hunger for knowledge. He gravitated towards animals. Unlike his peers, who either ignored or belittled him, Johnson’s pet companions offered unconditional support. Soon, snakes and lizards shared his insular world. He learned from observation and shared it with anyone with his passion. “It was visual; it was hands-on; it was experience.”

By 17, Johnson was a falconer, the logical progression of his fascination with these birds of prey. He realized he had a natural talent for training them and bonding with them, so he pursued certification.

Propelled by more enthusiasm than self-promotion, Johnson sought out naturalist and wildlife groups in the region and offered himself for lectures. He became one of the youngest members of the Explorers Club. In 1989, word of his achievements reached Jim Fowler, the TV host of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, who invited the teen falconer to appear with him on NBC’s Today. Lectures around the country followed.

So while Rusty Johnson the high schooler was still sweating assignments and exams – he estimates he had a second-grade education at the time – Rusty Johnson the naturalist had established himself in the field.“I became known as the guy with the falcon,” he said.


To continue following Rusty’s story click here.


Jay Blotcher’s only experience with pythons is watching Monty Python movies in the comfort of his home. He writes often for Hudson Valley Parent.